Imagine how Tetris would be improved by a love triangle, each L piece casting nervous but lascivious glances at the long block as it descends next to the square…That’s a fic for another time. But we thrive on relationships. On camaraderie, brotherhood, and romantic entanglements. In any game that has characters, we’re already looking t establish relationships between them. We ship them in fiction, in art, in tweets, and in our hearts. Even the unlikely ones. Sometimes especially the unlikely ones.
Also, games with dating mechanics are huge. Mass Effect, Dragon Age, even Stardew Valley. We yearn to be the stars of our own love stories. Action games will often offer a mechanical incentive to pursue relationships or romance, like Fallout 4’s companion perks. Having friends gives you superpowers, which is in keeping with reality at least. Characters are changed by your constant hanging about doing things that they like.
But we are not changed.
One of the neat things about visual novel style dating games, seen in everything from Hatoful Boyfriend to Dream Daddy, is that the protagonist themselves is changed by their relationship with a partner. They build you into a stronger person and create a sense of building up who you are. Dream Daddy is as much about growing into a man who’s ready for his daughter to move on to college as it is about sexing up the hot dads in your cul de sac.
Some games offer relationship management even without the player as protagonist model, too. Strategy games like Guilds, Crusader Kings, and Europa Universalis put players in the position of managing lineages, using relationships to forge alliances and letting them worry about members of their family turning on their empire because of a bad match, or because they’re drawing power from a good one. X-Com 2’s latest expansion, War of the Chosen, introduced the ability to create and foster bonds between soldiers, sending them on missions to give them time to grow together, and ensuring that even the direst of enemies find kinship in your ranks.
It’s nice in action or strategy games when relationships confer advantages in the core game, whether that’s additional perks, money, or quests and obligations. It creates incentives for players who wouldn’t interact with that level of the narrative to do so, and gives them a bit more to fiddle with. But relationships shape the way we tell stories, and those are especially powerful in games. Connections between characters are integral to creating unique and memorable experiences.
Date your party. Date your allies. Date your enemies. Cultivate the same vibrant scenes we find in visual novels, with the same range of options. Create avenues for people to tell their own stories. Have rivals for your affections. God, remember rivals? Outside of Pokemon, they don’t make an appearance. Your companions lives revolve around you, whether it’s on a spaceship, at camp, or in whatever strange shanty fortress you’ve constructed at the Starlight Drive-in. A little competition is good for the story, beyond being another quest where you wander around, find some things, and shoot some people.
X-Com now has relationship mechanics, which is awesome. I’d love to see them in similar games that place characters in life or death situations, like Darkest Dungeon or FTL. We already have them in any AAA RPG title, but introducing complications that challenge the PC as messiah-commander would enrich them greatly, along with having more private moments and opportunities. It’s not that I don’t like having a heart to heart with Piper while nine raiders are shooting at us. It probably won’t kill me, but it does kill the mood a bit.
The end result is a richer narrative that’s good for everyone. Romance is already optional in most of those games, but there are lots of chances to take it beyond collecting hearts and quests, and to add it where it wouldn’t be otherwise. Ram it in there, because relationships are always relevant, even the irrelevant ones. It’s the story of our lives.